How assessment makes its mark on teacher supply

25th March 2016 at 00:00

The education debate at the moment is dominated by teacher supply. It’s always been an issue – we’ve never had enough maths or physics teachers and more isolated parts of the country have always struggled to get applicants. However, the problem is now spreading across both curriculum and country.

The main reason is growth in pupil numbers. Since 2009, the number of pupils in primary schools has increased by 422,000. That bulge is now hitting secondaries, while primary numbers continue to grow. The Department for Education projects that there will be 1.2 million more pupils by 2024 than there were in 2010. That’s the equivalent of 5,000 averagely sized primary schools.

Based on current teacher-pupil ratios, we need to recruit an extra 55,000 teachers over the next nine years just to manage this growth. In practice, this number will be higher as curriculum change will put particular pressure on academic subjects at secondary. This is not an impossible challenge – there are about 50,000 more teachers in England now than there were in 2000 – but a lot of things will need to go right and the numbers of new teachers recruited into the system will need to increase.

The retention problem has been overstated by some. We’re not facing an exodus of teachers, but there has been an uptick – from 8.4 per cent to 10.4 per cent – in the proportion leaving each year since 2010. This is small in percentage terms but is enough to neutralise the impact of any increases in recruitment. And reversing the trend may actually be easier than increasing recruitment because we know why it’s happening.

The National Foundation for Educational Research has shown that teachers aren’t leaving for better paid jobs in the city. Indeed, just 10 per cent go to work in the private sector while the vast majority continue to work in education. Perhaps the most astonishing statistic in the NFER report is that 15 per cent of those leaving (excluding retirees) are switching to become teaching assistants. There aren’t many professions where so many would voluntarily seek demotion.

If teachers aren’t leaving for better pay, then they must be leaving for better work-life balance, and we know that workload has increased over the past five years. We also know why it’s increased. It’s not because of a rise in contact hours. The teacher-pupil ratio fell during the 2000s as a significant growth in funding worked its way through the system. Since 2010 it has plateaued but is still better than it was. The average number of pupils per teacher in primaries has fallen from 23.3 to 20.9 since 2000 and in secondaries from 17.2 to 15.8.

This is confirmed by analysis of workload diaries submitted to the DfE, which show only marginal increases in teaching time in 2010-13. They also reveal the main culprit for increased workload: assessment, and specifically marking. According to the 2013 survey, primary teachers are spending 10 hours a week on this – twice as much as three years earlier. They now devote more time to planning, preparation and assessment each week than teaching.

If schools want to retain teachers, they need to design sustainable assessment systems that involve more immediate feedback in lessons, less book marking and less regular data entry. (Ofsted needs to go further and actively penalise schools that create unsustainable working conditions.)

There is strong evidence that pupil attainment is higher in schools with better working culture, so there is ample justification for changing the framework – and it would fit with a general shift away from assessing teaching to assessing the leadership and management of a school.

It is, admittedly, counterintuitive but Ofsted may be the best solution to the teacher supply problem.

Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser

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